Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 517-520
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The Deutsches Museum: Idea, Realization, and Objectives
Wolf Peter Fehlhammer and Wilhelm Fuessl
The Deutsches Museum in Munich is the largest and oldest museum in Germany devoted to the history of science and technology, and ranks with the great technical museums of the world: the Science Museum in London, the Conservatoire national des arts et metiers in Paris, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The museum was founded in 1903 by Oskar von Miller, a Munich engineer and pioneer in the field of electrical engineering. 1 He, the mathematician Walther von Dyck, and the pioneer of refrigeration engineering Carl von Linde constituted the original board of directors. The former South Kensington Museum in London and the Conservatoire national des arts et metiers served as models.
The basic conception of the founders comprised a broad pedagogical and scientific goal: the exhibitions should give an encyclopedic overview of all areas of technology and exact sciences. (This is why they excluded biology and medicine.) According to its original statutes, the museum should strive "to demonstrate the historical interaction of science, technology and industry and to illustrate the most important stages of development by exhibiting eminent and characteristic masterpieces." 2
The "masterpieces" in the museum's collections include, for example, the Magdeburger hemispheres of Otto von Guericke, the first glider of Otto Lilienthal, and the first automobile constructed by Carl Benz. The term was [End Page 517] chosen to stress the analogy to masterpieces of art, literature, or music. The museum's founders wished to raise the status of technical and scientific work in a society formed by classical education and humanistic thinking. Engineers and scientists were just becoming conscious of their importance to German society, and the founders hoped that the museum would help to foster cultural prestige to match that importance.
From the beginning all levels of society evinced support for the new museum. Within a decade of its founding more than forty thousand machines, technical apparatuses, and scientific instruments had been collected, mostly as donations. The first collection given to the museum, in 1903, was the famous collection of the Bavarian Academy of Science, comprising some two thousand scientific instruments. The German and the Bavarian governments made an annual contribution, and the city of Munich supplied electricity, water, and heat. The museum's present budget is around fifty million deutsche marks; 85 percent comes from the State of Bavaria, the remainder from the federal government.
The structure and arrangement of the collections followed a systematic categorization that stressed natural phenomena and technical processes. Within each exhibition section, historical landmarks of development and actual masterpieces characterized the special field in question. The curators sought where possible to exhibit and use fully functioning and operating originals, though sometimes replicas had to substitute for the original objects, especially the bigger ones. The museum's exhibits made use of the novel device of allowing visitors to initiate technical processes or demonstrations by the push of a button, and its dioramas are famous. In other cases machines or technical instruments were shown in their historical context; a well-known example is the mining exhibition, which winds through underground tunnels for one kilometer.
During the first period of the museum's history, from 1906 to 1925, provisional buildings housed the exhibitions. It took nearly two decades to finish the new building on an island of the river Isar in the center of Munich. The museum opened on 7 May 1925 with a famous parade sometimes called the "last festival of the Weimar Republic." In 1925 the exhibition space contained more than 30,000 square meters. Today the exhibitions encompass approximately 50,000 square meters. From 1928 to 1932 the library was built, and in 1935, a year after the death of Oskar von Miller, a separate Congress building completed the complex. During the last years of World War II the buildings were hit by more than five thousand incendiary bombs, damaging nearly 80 percent of the complex and destroying 20 percent of the collections. The...